Editor’s note: As progress toward a Khmer Rouge tribunal moves forward, the Cambodia Daily is running a series in which the people who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime share their stories. Subsequent stories will appear in future issues of The Cambodia Daily.
peam koh village, Prey Veng province – Most afternoons, Hen Bith sits by the road on a bamboo platform a few meters from the flood-eroded pavement.
Ostensibly Hen Bith, 70, is there to fix flat tires, but mostly, he watches the traffic pass and thinks—about his family, or the events of the day, or the reports he listens to on the radio every night.
“I listen to the Voice of America, and Khmer radio. I find the Khmer radio biased, while the VOA is more balanced,” he said.
Sometimes, he thinks about the Khmer Rouge years, when he went from being a well-paid truck driver to just another set of exhausted muscles, laboring to build a dam in a section of eastern Cambodia that had been badly battered by US bombs.
He lost a child to one of those bombs, he said, but that’s not what he wants to talk about.
“It was a very miserable time, during the Khmer Rouge. My family wasn’t split up, in that I knew where they were, and I could see them sometimes,” Hen Bith said, his voice low.
But Hen Bith was assigned to a mobile work crew, and was often far from home.
“Places that had no food, it was very difficult. We never had no food at all, but sometimes it was just a little rice, a kind of rice that was fit for pigs. My wife, she stole it from the pigs. Sometimes when I was out in the fields, I trapped rats and ate them. I had never done that before. The Khmer Rouge made me do it,” he said.
Hen Bith and his wife, Var Eng, say their section of Prey Veng was luckier than most. Some Khmer Rouge leaders in their area were relatively kind to the people.
“One of them still lives around here, but he was not a bad man. He was nice to the people. The bad ones left. They were afraid of the anger of the people. They went to Phnom Penh,” he said.
Var Eng defied the Khmer Rouge and lived to tell about it. They wanted her husband to drive trucks for them, she said, but she would not let him go.
“You could do that in our area. They let us refuse,” she said.
She was separated from her two children, however, and ordered to plant corn. The children were assigned to separate work brigades, and she rarely saw them. The couple knew conditions were harsher to the west, and it wasn’t long before things worsened in Prey Veng.
“Finally, we only had porridge, and if anyone tried to share it, that man or woman would disappear,” Var Eng said. She said she remembers being weak and sick, and having to swim through floodwaters to get to the communal kitchen.
If she wasn’t strong enough to swim, she couldn’t eat. Somehow, Var Eng said, she found the strength, at least often enough to stay alive.
Memories of those hungry, fear-filled years linger, both say. Hen Bith and Var Eng have made a point of telling the stories to their 10 grandchildren.
The grandchildren say they need not have worried.
“Nobody forgets it!” the couple’s grandson, Cheng Phalla, 19, said.
Yun Sophy, a neighbor, stopped his bike to join in the discussion.
“I was 17 when the Khmer Rouge came to power and forced me to dig and carry heavy loads,” he said.
That reminded Var Eng of the time she was in a line of people digging a trench, and someone seven meters away struck a land mine.
“Three people were killed. I saw what was left of the victims, burned black,” she said.
Hen Bith said he thinks back to his sister, whose husband owned a small ferry during the Lon Nol regime.
“The Khmer Rouge accused him of being a lieutenant in the Lon Nol army, so they killed them all. Ten people. They were killed over that hill,” he said.
As dark memories filled the air, talk turned to the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“I want to make sure that the people with blood on their hands go to trial,” Yun Sophy said.
“We are waiting for a tribunal, but we keep waiting, and waiting, and waiting. There must be a tribunal, otherwise we will have a problem again. We will be afraid,” Hen Bith said.
Hen Bith said he follows this issue closely, both in his village and listening on the radio.
“The people are fed up with the government on the tribunal. They talk about it but it never happens,” he said.
“I want the Khmer Rouge leaders tried, for justice. I don’t believe in the Cambodian court system. It is too corrupt. The government are liars. They are just waiting for the old Khmer Rouge leaders to die. I prefer an international tribunal, because then there will be justice,” he said.
At that point, Var Eng broke in.
“I want the Khmer Rouge to be tried!” she said. “I don’t want the people or the government to forget the past. The Cambodian people have suffered so much! The Khmer Rouge leaders must go to court.”